February 2004

Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 456 pages, $27)
By Colin MacCabe

Peter Biskind (Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) called Jean-Luc Godard "the most original filmmaker of the 20th century." Unless you lived through the impact that Breathless [À bout de souffle (1960)], Godard's first feature, had on the film world at the time of its release, you might think that Biskind was exaggerating.

In Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy, Colin MacCabe brings us into the Breathless experience, making us present at Godard's daring shooting, lighting and editing techniques. These were some of the innovations that inspired filmmakers from London to Hollywood — even, or perhaps especially, in television commercials, which in turn affected features, much the way music videos would in the last decades of the 20th century.

"Godard," MacCabe writes, "broke all the rules." He made Breathless "for a third of the normal cost because he was working with an extremely reduced crew," which also helped him capture "reality on the run." They moved so fast "passersby on the Champs Elysees didn't know they were there." Godard used almost no artificial lighting, dubbed sound and dialogue later and finished the shoot in four weeks. His editing (to jazz) seemed radical with its jump cuts and his "faux raccords" (false matching shots) made the film notorious even before it hit the theaters.

Though much has been written about Godard, MacCabe's is the first biography of this difficult director. As David Thomson says in The New Biographical History of Film, Godard, like Orson Welles, "is trapped in the role of Young Turk." The films — Breathless being chief among them — by which he is most widely known today were all made in the '60s. Such work as Contempt [Le Mépris (1963)], Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965) — Godard's "beautiful foray into sci-fi," to quote a recent piece in TV Guide, where the "only special effect Godard needed was his imagination—, Pierot le Fou (1965) and Made in USA (1966) — dedicated to Nick Ray and Sam Fuller — were some of the biggest splashes of France's New Wave cinema.

But MacCabe, who worked on a number of films with Godard in the 1990s, takes us forward through all the changes in his prolific career, with appreciations of his later films — some short, some on video — as "Godard has been as hard at work as ever since his 70th birthday."

MacCabe also takes us brilliantly backward into postwar French film history, highlighting the importance of Henri Langlois's Cinemateque and Andre Bazin's influential journal, Cahiers du Cinema, the premier promoter of the auteur theory. Writing for the powerful magazine, Godard was a passionate critic along with other such fervent young men as Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, who also "swapped their pens for cameras."

MacCabe supplies an extensive filmography (including the film stock used), thorough chapter notes and interesting photo captions. If it is true, as David Thomson writes, that filmmaking for Godard was "existence itself," he couldn't have a better biographer.

Review written by Lisa Mitchell


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